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The world that America built

Three new books by major commentators ask what a planet without US leadership would look like.

Raymond Aron once described US foreign policy as a series of “swings between the crusading spirit and a withdrawal into isolation far from a corrupt world that refused to heed the American gospel”. After an orgy of Bush-era crusades, the US under Barack Obama is now withdrawing from Afghanistan and its troops left Iraq in December 2011. But a series of books that have just been published asks if this is an ordinary swing of the type Aron described or the beginning of the end of the American era.

In different ways, Robert Kagan, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Ian Bremmer all tell the tale of what the world will look like when the tide of US power goes out, leaving its detritus on the shore (what Antonio Gramsci called the “morbid symptoms” of an interregnum, in which the old order is dying but the new cannot yet be born). Although all three books argue that decline is not “pre-ordained”, they are the first by major US commentators to begin
to engage with the consequences of a post-American world.

Starting from the assumption that decline is a choice, Kagan’s elegant and perceptive essay The World America Made aims to convince his compatriots not to commit what he calls “superpower suicide” by laying out a dystopian vision of a world without the US.

Kagan describes the unique qualities of the past few decades, which have been characterised by the absence of great power conflict, the spread of democracy and the consolidation of a liberal economic order. He also shows that the US’s golden age was neither as golden nor as hegemonic as some historical accounts imply: “[T]he United States is not able to get what it wants most of the time. But then, it never could.”

Kagan forcefully rejects the assumption that the liberal world order is the inevitable result of human progress driven by advances in science and technology, an interdependent global economy, strengthening international institutions, evolving “norms of international behaviour” and the gradual triumph of liberal dem­ocracy. Kagan sees these things as effect, rather than cause: “[T]he better idea doesn’t have to win just because it is a better idea. It requires great powers to champion it.” According to Kagan, the world has turned out the way it is because the US has used guns and butter to promote these ideas – often in spite of itself (partly because America’s autocratic allies, from Ferdinand Marcos to Hosni Mubarak, did not feel that the sort of repression tolerated by China and Russia was an option for them).

True to his power-based world-view, Kagan argues that it is wrong to think American hegemony was tolerated because it was embodied in alliances and institutions. The US has often casually sidelined allies and broken the rules it made. For Kagan, the principal reasons for tolerance were political and geographic: Americans have always seemed reluctant to wield power and are fortunate in being geographically isolated from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, where nations have competed for power. As a result, nations in each of these regions have worried more about the power play of their neighbours than US predominance.

Kagan argues that the liberal world order is more fragile than people in the west suppose and that it is unlikely to survive US decline. If other great powers emerge that do not share American values, they will build a world in their own image rather than be “socialised” into becoming “responsible stakeholders” that uphold the existing order. In an evocative simile, he compares the world order to a building site – with the scaffolding representing liberal institutions wrapped around the building of American power (“They don’t hold the building up; the building holds them up”).

Kagan argues that a multipolar world is more likely to collapse into the kind of violence that defined 19th-century Europe than to support a liberal order it did not create. Kagan’s is a one-dimensional world-view that only recognises the importance of military power. Even the sections he devotes to the global economy are translated into arguments about the defence of sea lanes and the global commons.

It is left to the former US national security adviser Brzezinski to bring a political dimension to the discussion of global power. Like Kagan, he begins with an attempt to frighten his American readers by drawing an arresting parallel between the Soviet Union in the years just before its fall and the US of the early 21st century.

Although, like the other authors, he goes to some lengths to explain the residual strengths of the US, his critique indicts gridlocked government, excessive military spending, entanglement in Afghanistan, technological and economic stumbling, widening social disparities and self-isolation in foreign affairs.

Brzezinski does not content himself with a study of the shift in power from west to east.  His book shines a light on a second and potentially even more profound trend that he calls the “global political awakening”. Brzezinski claims that global power has been diffused by emancipation of people around the world: “For most of history, humanity has lived not only in compartmentalised isolation but also in a state of political stupor.” In other words, most people in most places were so focused on material survival that they were not politically conscious, let alone active. But the rise of living standards, compulsory education and the internet have given them the tools and the will to shape their own futures:

[I]n much of today’s world, the millions of university students are thus the equivalent of Marx’s concept of the “proletariat”: the restless, resentful post-peasant workers of the early industrial age, susceptible to ideological agitation and revolutionary mobilisation.

The idea of political awakening is a concept Brzezinski has been refining in different forms since he was a PhD student and it provides one of the most profound explanations for recent events such as the Arab uprisings of 2011. The genius of his latest book is to show that it is the combination of these two trends – the power shift from west to east and the political awakening – that makes western dominance much more difficult to sustain. Brzezinski quotes a sentence from his earlier book The Grand Chessboard: “In the long run, global politics are bound to become increasingly uncongenial to the concentration of hegemonic power in the hands of a single state. Hence, America is not only the first, as well as the only, truly global superpower, but it is also likely to be the very last.”

Brzezinski takes this idea further by showing that in today’s post-colonial world, the newly awakened share a “historical narrative that interprets their relative deprivation . . . and continued personal disadvantage as the collective legacy of western domination”. That is why, when they get the chance to have democracy (as in Egypt and Tunisia), they often use it to emancipate themselves from, rather than adopt, western values.

Brzezinski’s description of the shape of a world without US pre-eminence is more concrete than Kagan’s. He writes of a post-American scramble among powers in each region and the danger of the western hemisphere returning to political competition and proposes the idea of “geopolitically endangered states” that would stand to lose their sovereignty in a post-American world. His list includes Georgia, Taiwan, South Korea, Belarus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel.

Bremmer’s smart and snappy Every Nation for Itself provides the most cogent prediction of how the politics of a post-American world will play out. He shows that it is not just liberal democratic values or the security of allies that is at stake. The institutions governing everything from global trade to climate to the security of the internet are in jeopardy. “This is not a global order,” he claims, “but every nation for itself. And if the G7 no longer matters and the G20 doesn’t work, then . . . all we have left is G-zero.” As well as coining a smart neologism to capture the political dynamics of the interregnum, Bremmer describes in some detail a world in which the US no longer has the resources or legitimacy to offer leadership but where the rising powers aren’t yet ready or able to take up the slack. He suggests who the winners and losers in such a world will be.

The winner’s column will include “pivot states” (such as Brazil, Canada and Turkey) that are able to realign themselves with multiple powers, and “rogue states” with powerful friends (such as North Korea, Iran and Burma) that will find it easier to evade sanctions. In the losing camp are the global institutions that underpinned the American world order (such as Nato, the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions) and countries whose interests were too closely bound to those of the US (Brzezinski’s “endangered states”) or are unable to build relations with others (such as Britain).

As fascinating as these books are, they also illustrate the limitations of the US foreign-policy debate. The US may be the land of the brave and the home of the free but its debate has not been free enough and its analysts not brave enough to engage honestly with the politically toxic idea of decline. All three authors go to some length to show that the US is not declining in absolute or even in relative terms. They each cite the classical indicators of economic, military and technological power to demonstrate that the US is, in Brzezinski words, “peerless”.

However, power is also about perceptions. In the golden period of American hegemony, other nations treated the US as a leader, deferring to its judgements in part because they tended to overestimate its actual power. Today, the world is more likely to underestimate it. As a result, US allies from Egypt to Turkey seem to glory in instrumentalising their most im­portant strategic relationship while ignoring American preferences on a range of issues.

Even in Asia, where Obama’s pivot to the east was welcomed with open arms by countries nervous of their overdependence on a rising China, the basic assumption is that the US is declining. But rather than taking the trends they describe to their logical conclusion, all three authors choose to present their vision as an attempt to reinvent American leadership for a new era.

For a European reader, there is one major lacuna here: the role of Europe in “the world America made”. One of the big stories of the past 60 years has been the creation of a European-inspired legal order in the shell of a US security order.

The truth is that it is Europeans rather than Americans who have allowed the US order to earn the honorific “liberal”. It is the Europeans who have stood up for the rights of individuals to be free from the oppression of states. It is ­Europeans who were behind the creation of a World Trade Organisation that can override national sovereignty to prevent protectionism. And it is Europeans who have pushed for institutionalised answers to global problems from climate change to genocide.

One might say that if the US was the sheriff of the liberal order, the European Union was its constitutional court, bringing legitimacy to the inroads it made in national sovereignty. Yet none of the authors talks about these norms, which have become as “geopolitically endangered” as the US allies that Brzezinski worries about. Given the backdrop of the euro crisis, it is understandable that the three books have nothing positive to say about the contribution of today’s European governments. However, it is surprising that none of them thinks seriously about the consequences of the US’s purely instrumental attitude towards Europe.

It is an important question whether, even if the liberal order can survive the end of American hegemony, it could survive the marginalisation of the EU’s legal order. In other words, even if it can survive US decline, could the liberal order survive the decline of Europe? That is a question that Europeans must answer – although in the current climate of fatalism and introversion, it is unlikely that Europe will produce books with the perspicacity or ambition of Kagan’s, Brzezinski’s or Bremmer’s.

Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “What Does China Think?” (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue